Tag Archives: Nick Powell

“The Glow” at the Royal Court Theatre

A supernatural spectacular, Alistair McDowall’s new play travels to the beginning and the end of time. With a central character – The Woman – who is immortal, there’s an ambition to the piece that is almost foolhardy. Thankfully, the writer’s vision is matched by Vicky Featherstone’s bold direction and superb production values.

McDowall sensibly picks the spiritualist Victorian era to start. The Woman is plucked from a cell by a medium called Mrs Lyall. There’s to be an experiment. Mrs Lyall’s wish is to become the first necromancer – I guess it’s good to have ambition – but her victim turns out to be “something other” than she could possibly imagine.

All the way through – and a lot of ground is covered – McDowall’s sense of humour is key. Mrs Lyall’s imperiousness (pity her poor son, impeccably played by Fisayo Akinade) makes her a great role for Rakie Ayola. Back and forth in time we go with a Knight from the Middle Ages in tow (a strong character well played by Tadgh Murphy). Questions of death and suffering frequently arise. That The Glow is funny but still takes itself seriously is impressive. Spooky touches are abandoned, and conspiracy theories debunked – yet the fantastical manages to convince.

The Glow is far from silly sci-fi. The Woman has played major parts in history as well as myth (exploring the relation between the two proves a distraction). But what we see are smaller stories. A retired nurse who is grieving her son (excellent performances again from Ayloa and Akinade) adds some warmth to a generally cool play.

McDowell focuses on the personal for The Woman. Asking how someone feels about being eternal might strike you as simply strange. Yet it serves to look at mortality in an original way. As the character of the nurse remarks, “trying to think about something I couldn’t imagine” is hard: it’s a step McDowall is brave enough to take.

The Glow at the Royal Court inset credit Manuel Harlan

In the difficult role of ‘The Woman’ Ria Zmitrowicz excels, giving a character who mostly wants to hide, suitable charisma. The performance, and the plot, are nicely puzzling. But there’s a sense it’s the production that is the star here. Merle Hensel’s flexible minimalist set adds style as well as menace. The lighting and sound design, from Jessica Hung Han Yun and Nick Powell, aided by Tal Rosner’s video work, is superb. McDowall has plenty of ideas yet the act of bringing them to the stage is what impresses most.

Until 5 March 2022

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“The Tell-Tale Heart” at the National Theatre

As one of the original so-called ‘in-yer-face’ dramatists, a loose group known for their aggressive writing, horror seems an appropriate genre for Anthony Neilson to explore. Here, comedy, crime and suspense are all added to a Gothic tale that is also about the theatre; making a crazy mix that plays with plays and travels from shock to schlock. One part is genuinely sickening, which is an achievement… of sorts.

Inspiration comes from the short story by Edgar Allan Poe, helpfully reprinted in the programme, about a senseless murder followed by a guilt-ridden confession. The update is to have a playwright rather than a madman, and a landlady with a large prosthetic eye that’s genuinely freaky.

Since we know the plot, Neilson’s direction deserves full credit for adding tension: maybe he’s an ‘edge-of-yer-seat’ writer now? The story’s claustrophobic setting is conveyed by Francis O’Connor’s design and the narrator’s acute, indeed hallucinatory, sense of hearing has led to strong work from composer and sound designer Nick Powell: in this story of the eye, the ears have it.

For many, success will come with the show’s comedy, even if it is the quantity rather than quality of jokes that impresses. The Tell-Tale Heart is tasteless, there’s a lot of – literally – toilet humour. And crudity, of course, although a joke about oral sex with a hipster is inspired. The comedy is always well delivered. Tamara Lawrance and Imogen Doel are excellent as, respectively, the contemporary playwright Celeste and her oddball landlady Nora. Meanwhile, David Carlyle is brilliant as two incarnations of a police man; one in the version of events that’s been turned into a play.

David Carlyle and Tamara Lawrance

So, clearly, the play is self-consciously clever, such as getting us to laugh at physical deformity, then reminding us that’s not very nice. And depicting Celeste, harshly, as an easily recognisable virtue warrior who turns out to be a psychopath. Back to that programme, and an excellent essay by Greg Buzwell, who proposes that the gothic genre “mutates” to show us contemporary fears. What might Neilson be revealing? Some people are worried that artists should be exemplary people. It’s a current debate, but a little dull. Making jokes about how “writers writing” is boring doesn’t make the play’s focus on just that any more interesting. On a broader level, are we all worried about not being quite so civilised as we would wish – or is demanded of us?

Raising these questions seems a small payoff for the elaborate games played here. All in all, there’s a little too much genre being juggled. And final twists in the tale (there’s more than one) prove a tad lame. It’s a shame, since The Tell-Tale Heart, beneath trying too hard, is pumping good fun.

Until 8 January 2019

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“X” at the Royal Court

Don’t look at the script beforehand – the pages of Xs and blank spaces in ‘A_ct Two’ (sic) give the impression that Alistair McDowall’s new play is pretentious. Fear not, this latest head scratcher at the Royal Court is a spooky sci-fi that’s hugely entertaining.

Set in a research base on Pluto, after environmental collapse on Earth, the abandoned crew is going mad. The characters aren’t entirely successful: cynical captain (Darrell D’Silva works hard at this) and autistic scientist (Rudi Dharmalingam) are a little flat. Better written are younger, amusingly annoying crewmates, played by Ria Zmitrowicz and James Harkness. The most demanding role is for Jessica Raine. Alongside Harkness, she deals with the most challenging scene (those Xs again) admirably, and her vulnerability is an asset to the play.

It’s what happens to these astronauts that counts and, as with any good thriller, tension comes from simple events: the clock controlled from Earth goes wrong, there’s a nightingale flying around and a terrifying figure outside the window! Along with a goosebumps-generating soundtrack from Nick Powell, and a good sense of humour, this show is fun.

How time connects to memory, thus identity and even reality are the serious themes. With no sense of passing days, the crew collapses into paranoia and they, like the audience, can trust nothing. Director Vicky Featherstone pulls out all the stops, and adds a necessary ruthlessness to that printed script. As the crazy delusions mount, you come to dread each blackout and what might appear next. X has plenty of cinematic references and a filmic feel that make it easy to watch. McDowall messes around with everyone’s heads with terrific skill.

Until 7 May 2016

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“All My Sons” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s 2014 season got off to a cracking start last night with a new production of All My Sons. The Arthur Miller classic, about a war profiteer and his family, is given a terrific treatment by the theatre’s artistic director Timothy Sheader. The play’s moral concerns and complexity receive due deference while a tremendous amount of suspense is added in.

Sheader has some fine performers to work with. Tom Mannion and Bríd Brennan play the Kellers with care and skill; he seems all conviviality, the working man made good, while her fixed grin belies an iron will corroded by the secrets they share. Rich from supplying faulty goods to the US Air Force, the next generation must share the legacy of their mistakes.

Back from fighting in World War II, the Keller’s son Chris is caught between a family mourning his lost brother and his own noble ambitions to live a better life. Chris’ love for his brother’s sweetheart, Ann, literally the girl next door, forces him to confront the role her father took as a patsy for the Kellers’ crime. Amy Nuttall plays Ann with skilful restraint, building momentum as the play’s shocking revelations unfold.

Charles Aitken excels as Keller Jnr, the war-traumatised conscience of the piece, with a perfect smile that reflects his character’s optimism and the charm to convince us that he is as good as he seems. In a play seething about the hypocrisy behind the poster-perfect American suburbs (aided here by Maddie Rice’s superb performance as a neighbour), Chris has to be the believable beacon of integrity, and Aitken delivers a great performance.

Not surprisingly, Sheader knows how to use the space at his own theatre. Tying the play’s timing to the setting of the sun is hugely effective, while Lizzie Clachan’s set is thought provoking and Nick Powell’s music superb. The play speeds by at a cracking pace and the carefully controlled tension is tremendous. A stunning final scene makes this a truly haunting evening and shows a director in charge of a quality production.

Until 7 June 2014

www.openairtheatre.com

Photo by Tommy Ga Ken Wan

Written 21 May 2014 for The London Magazine